by Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp
Department of Anthropology & Center for Disability Studies, New York University

In the spirit of this blog’s dedication to “disability histories for the present,” we use this post to reflect on the future of disability publics in the United States, more than a quarter century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, and in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency. As groundbreaking legislation, the ADA was necessary but not sufficient to undergird the actual transformations required for people with disabilities to be fully recognized as American citizens, whether in schools, movie theaters, on the internet, or in the voting booth.

In a 2016 essay inaugurating Disability, a series of weekly essays in The New York Times written by and about people living with disabilities, scholar-activist Rosemarie Garland Thomson wrote about the expansion in numbers and recognition of people with disabilities, pointing out that “disability is everywhere once you start noticing it.”
The National Organization on Disability says there are 56 million disabled people. Indeed, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, and as new disability categories such as neurodiversity, psychiatric disabilities, disabilities of aging and learning disabilities emerge and grow, so does that percentage.
(Garland-Thomson 2016, p. SR1)
Given these numbers – moving toward 20% of the population – we were excited when disability activists launched two remarkable nonpartisan efforts to get the 2016 presidential candidates to talk about issues relevant to this community for the first time in American history. Using the reach of social media, the Twitter campaign #cripthevote engaged voters and encouraged politicians to have a national conversation about disability rights. Additionally, Washington D.C. based disability activists launched RespectAbility, another initiative to get candidates to address disability issues. Both groups underscored the potential power of the disability vote in America.

A study by U.S. political scientists Lisa Schur and Doug Krause, well-known for their work on disability, law and social policy, projected that roughly one-sixth of the electorate, more than 35 million people with disabilities out of 56 million total were eligible to vote this year. This was heartening but not surprising. What WAS surprising was that these voters for whom disability is a central concern, identified almost equally with the two major political parties (Schur and Krause 2016). Given the stark contrast between the Clinton and Trump campaigns around disability issues, we nonetheless assumed, along with many others, that the disability vote would indeed rally for Clinton, whose policy recommendations addressed areas of key importance to this constituency. This was in sharp distinction to the lack of any interest in the issue on the part of Trump, as well as his disgraceful behavior at a November 2015 rally when he mocked the atypical gestures and shortened arms of The New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis. This was the most widely condemned of all Trump’s many insults during the long and nasty campaign season. Moreover, he continued to be silent on disability issues and policy proposals throughout his campaign. In contrast, in June 2016, Priorities USA ran a pro-Clinton ad in which Dante Lachtman, a seventeen-year-old African American cancer survivor with a limp watches Trump’s mocking behavior on TV, then speaks to the viewer, saying : “I don’t want a president who makes fun of me, I want a president who inspires me. That’s not Donald Trump”. 

Still from political ad with Dante Lachtman, an African American teenager  facing the camera with arms folded, displaying a tattoo, “Cancer Survivor.”. Courtesy of Priorities USA, 2016
 A month later, at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton made sure that disability activists were featured speakers, a first for a presidential convention. For example, the speech of New York City’s wheelchair-using disability activist Anastasia Somoza brought the crowd to its feet.
 Disability activist Anastasia Somoza, young woman in a power chair on  stage, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, July 2016. Courtesy of REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Throughout, the care given to make the infrastructure of the convention itself accessible was notable. Furthermore, the DNC’s platform included a strong disability-friendly defense of Medicaid (government insurance for disabled and low-income citizens) and public education, both widely perceived to be under attack in the Republican platform. Clinton frequently spoke out about disability issues at campaign rallies. At a September 21, 2016 rally, she made her case clearly in her opening line.
Today I want to focus on one area that hasn’t gotten enough attention. It concerns a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked, and undervalued; who have so much to offer but are given too few chances to prove it…I’m talking about people with disabilities. 
(M & L 2016)
She went on to describe education, job and housing opportunities that she intended to pursue if elected. Again, Trump was noticeably silent on all these issues.

Clearly, the efforts of disability activists in the 2016 elections had rapidly developed in terms of both political and technological savvy. Hashtag and other forms of online activism created networks and awareness, encouraging disabled Americans and their allies to make their votes count. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the numbers of people with disabilities might form a constituency that could alter the electoral process.

Like many Americans, we were stunned when Trump won the election. We had to revisit our overly optimistic assumptions about a unified disability voting bloc and scrutinize what actually happened. Clearly, there were issues of turnout and accessibility, but more importantly, data show that the disability vote was split along party lines, as, indeed, it has always been, despite Trump’s egregious behavior. What does this portend for the next four years? The Trump administration seems determined to undermine the gains of the last quarter century, if we are to take seriously the confirmation of Secretary of Education, Betsy deVos, whose profound ignorance about public education extends to total lack of knowledge of decades-old national legal entitlements to special education for children with disabilities. While our Attorney General Jeff Sessions is more knowledgeable, his contempt for legal guarantees for free and appropriate public education American children with disabilities, is stunning. These are indeed grim times.

Clearly, we cannot take longstanding federal legislation for granted; the ADA is under threat as is the very recognition of the personhood of those with disabilities. At the time of this writing, June 2017, deep cuts to programs that people with disabilities rely on are at the heart of President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal, in particular Medicaid, the form of government health insurance on which many people with disabilities rely. As scholars and activists, we need to understand what happened, as we collectively imagine how to defend the rights of the heterogeneous forms of embodiment that shape our body politic. One way to begin is to look at some key findings about the election. On FiveThirtyEight (named for the number of electors in the U.S. electoral college), a popular website analyzing opinion polls in politics, economics, and culture, Amelia Thomson-Deveaux reminded us that:
For years, their growing numbers have led disability rights activists to claim that voters with disabilities are a “sleeping giant” that could, one day, decide national elections. But politicians can’t count on voters with disabilities as a voting bloc in the way that they can with so many other demographics. People with disabilities tend to support Republicans and Democrats in fairly equal numbers, which complicates efforts to tailor political messages to them (and compounds their appeal as a potential swing demographic). …bipartisan polls...found that voters with disabilities and their family and friends split their votes almost evenly between Trump (46 percent) and Clinton (49 percent). These voters identified themselves as 41 percent Democrat, 21 percent Independent and 31 percent Republican; on Election Day more Independents with disabilities voted for Trump than Clinton. While many voters felt that Trump made fun of people with disabilities, he was seen as stronger on changing Washington and failed economic policies that hold people with disabilities back. Although the Clinton campaign had a strong slate of disability issues, polling showed that those messages did not break through to voters. While this was covered in print media, it did not make it into the television news cycle in a meaningful way. [despite the fact that…] voters universally agreed (90 percent) that it is important that a candidate for elected office treats people with disabilities with dignity and respect.

(Thomson-DeVeaux 2016)
In addition, lack of accessibility at polling places remains an important issue. Lisa Schur and colleagues estimated that this caused a turnout gap of almost 12 percent between people with disabilities and those without, amounting to about three million voters. Despite laws to make polling places more accessible, 30 percent of people with disabilities reported difficulty in voting, compared with 8 percent of people without disabilities. The turnout gap was largest for people with cognitive impairments (Schur, Ameri, and Adya 2017).

The ongoing mobilization of disability publics is crucial but complex to achieve. Clearly, remaking disability histories for the present requires more work, from attending to cultural innovation and accessible infrastructure, to rendering political ideologies and platforms more transparent in terms of disability rights. We’d like to give the last word to neurodiversity activist Ari Ne’eman. Like all world-changing activists, he persists in finding hope despite bleak times.
…it may very well be that disability rights activists will achieve greater solidarity … after four years of shared opposition to the outrages of President Trump. Compared with the potentially game-changing strides forward promised by the Clinton campaign, this is cold comfort – but it is something we can cling to as we prepare for the fights to come. With the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities at stake -- as well as those of people of color, Jews, Muslims, low-income persons, LGBTQ Americans, and members of other marginalized groups --we need all the silver lining we can find. The next four years will be difficult ones.

(Ne’eman 2016)
Our posting is drawn from a longer essay, “Cripping the New Normal: Making Disability Count”, for Alter: European Journal of Disability Research, 11/2, Summer 2017.
Thanks to Anne Klein for her editorial comments.

#CripTheVote was created by Gregg Beratan, Alice Wong, and Andrew Pulrang. For those who want more information, #cripthevote's evolving work can be found at: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2016/01/27/cripthevote-our-voices-our-vote/ And also: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2017/01/23/dvp-interview-gregg-beratan-andrew-pulrang-alice-wong/

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2016): Becoming Disabled. The New York Times. SR1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/opinion/sunday/becoming-disabled.html, accessed June 12, 2017.
M & L (2016): Clinton’s 2016 Campaign Brings Disability Issues to the Forefront of the Presidential Election | M & L Special Needs Planning. http://specialneedsplanning.net/2016/09/clintons-2016-campaign-brings-disability-issues-to-the-forefront-of-the-presidential-election/, accessed June 13, 2017.
Ne’eman, Ari (2016): I’m a Disabled American. Trump’s Policies Will Be a Disaster for People like Me. - Vox. Vox. http://www.vox.com/first-person/2016/11/9/13576712/trump-disability-policy-affordable-care-act, accessed February 27, 2017.
Schur, Lisa/ Mason Ameri/ Meera Adya (2017): Disability, Voter Turnout, and Polling Place Accessibility*. Social Science Quarterly.
Schur, Lisa, and Douglas Kruse (2016): Projecting the Number of Eligible Voters with Disabilities in the November 2016 Elections (Research Report) | School of Management and Labor Relations. Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. http://smlr.rutgers.edu/news/projecting-number-eligible-voters-disabilities-november-2016-elections-research-report, accessed February 27, 2017.
Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia (2016): One In Six Eligible Voters Has A Disability. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/one-in-six-eligible-voters-has-a-disability/, accessed February 27, 2017.

Recommended Citation: 
Faye Ginsburg / Rayna Rapp (2017): #CRIPTHEVOTE and Beyond. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 11.


  1. Kind of BS to call this #CripTheVote when nothing is mentioned about the #CripTheVote movement or no attribution to Gregg, Andrew, and Alice, who started the CtV movement!

    1. Hi Dominick - You are absolutely right that Andrew, Gregg and Alice deserve acknoweldgement for their fantastic work. Thanks for pointing that out. For those who want more information, #cripthevote's evolving work can be found at: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2016/01/27/cripthevote-our-voices-our-vote/

      In a forthcoming article-length version of this piece, we go into greater detail and discuss the work of these important disability activists as well as others who continue to mobilize the disability vote in the U.S. We had to cut substantially to conform to this blog's word-length.

      We think that the impact of #cripthevote and other fellow travelers is only beginning to be felt!
      best wishes,
      Faye and Rayna